Many moons ago in the initial days of marketing career, I used to manage print advertisement. The drill was straightforward: brief the agency for print advertising creatives, then review it until it was approved by my then-boss and released to the agency, who would subsequently disseminate it with publications.
It took me a while to get used to the pressure of a deadline, as print ads have to be submitted with publication before the 5 p.m. deadline. Most days, I would be scrambling to put things together.
A pan-India Times of India circulation would imply that your print advertisement will appear in seventeen editions. This entailed reviewing and approving seventeen versions of the advertisement, each with a slightly modified boilerplate or phone number.
But what initially looked challenging soon became muscle memory. Within a couple of months, I settled into my role and was also used to constant bickering between the agency head and my supervisor. At this point, my then-boss was also gradually teaching me the ropes of copywriting, the importance of colors, layout, and design.
He summoned me into his cabin one day and said, “I do not want you to be a postman.” I shook my head in bewilderment. He went on to add, “Every time a creative leaves your inbox, consider what your contribution was and how you made it better from the time it arrived in your box.”
At the time, I was probably a bit naïve and didn’t completely grasp what he was trying to convey. I gradually improved at what I was doing and began making a positive impact at work. However, as the years passed, it became clear that his words had a deeper meaning.
Today, the greatest plague that every marketing team confronts is having individuals who perform postman’s duties and end up ruining the marketing culture. No offense meant to the postal office and the work they are doing.
Marketing Culture: Postman, and Paper Pushers
Harish Chawla was a recent guest on the Cred Curious Podcast, which I was listening to. It still baffles me that I didn’t know anything about Harish before the podcast; that is the type of bubble I live in. He was asked how he recognizes successful individuals, and his answer struck a chord with me.
He said that he focuses on two aspects, and the rest generally falls into place. The first is the desire to do a good job and do it extremely well. That is the fundamental trait he seeks. The individual is not doing this because someone else is watching or rating them. This is where he believes the wheat and chaff get separated.
He goes on to add that this intrinsic desire to do a good job is almost artisanal; you can detect this in the way people do things, how they react, and address rejection.
The second is a healthy respect for people; you won’t be able to lead people or carry people along with you without it. It is respecting people for the work they do; consider the chauffeur who drives you or the lift man in your office building. They have no control over their working hours; they are taking instructions from people all the time.
We think that everyone is like us, yet the desire to perform good work does not come naturally to many people.
Paper-Pushers & Postman (woman’s) of Marketing
To clarify, the fact that I used the term “postman” does not mean that women do not engage in this behavior. Just trying to be gender-sensitive before we get into the meat of the matter. Mostly the advertising industry addresses this behavior by labeling people as paper-pushers.
But I believe paper-pusher is probably an inaccurate word to describe this behavior. Paper pushers are people who do uninteresting work and are more likely to develop muscle memory. Many of the people I know who work in clerical positions are also some of the nicest people I’ve encountered. Some of them don’t have a choice; they’re either trapped in their jobs due to their qualifications or due to financial constraints.
Nobody chooses to be a postman or postwoman; you don’t realize until you have turned into one. It doesn’t take long before you snap out of it and start contributing; all it takes is a little nudge to dive back into your senses.
So let’s talk about how you can ensure that neither you nor any of your team members never succumb to this behavior. Here are fives to deal with or kill the postman’s behavior to improve your marketing culture.
1. Radical Candor
Kim Scott addresses the concept of Ruinous Empathy in her book, Radical Candor. She mentions how we are always trying to be ‘nice’ when it comes to giving feedback to spare other people’s feelings.
It is very common to sugarcoat feedback, especially when you are being critical about someone’s work. I am aware of this since I’ve done my share of sugar coating. However, in the long term, it simply harms the individual’s career.
You have to say it the way it is without being aggressive. Critical feedback is always painful; therefore, always deliver it in a private meeting. It is also critical to strike a balance between praise and criticism. Praise in public, criticize in private.
2. Disproportionate Value
The best way to get recognized at work is to create disproportionate value. This is where Harish’s remark rings true; what distinguishes brilliant individuals from others is their willingness to go the extra mile. When you disproportionately create or protect value, you become a truly indispensable resource for the organization.
K. Vaitheeswaran’s book, Failing to Succeed, has a story that explains why the value you create at work matters. In 1999, the author was the chief of marketing services for Wipro’s computer division. Wipro was never big on ad spends, and most days, Vaitheeswaran had nothing worthwhile to do.
While he was still toying with the idea of joining a start-up, he decided to do one final decisive test. He took a leave of absence for two days without informing anyone. When he finally reappeared in office, he realized that nobody noticed and people spoke to him as usual. The author quit the job a few days later to join the start-up.
Every few weeks or months, take out a sheet of paper and start writing what you’ve done at work and how it has made a difference to the organization and the people around you. When you run out of words to express how you feel, it’s time to leave the organization.
Boredom is one of the primary reasons for inertia in any organization. When employees find the current situation is no longer stimulating or meaningful, they lose their focus. This behavior becomes very evident as they zone out of the meetings or stop contributing to discussions.
It’s hard to get people out of their comfort zone and look at things differently. But overcoming inertia needs a strong catalyst for marketing it is usually anything that stimulates creativity.
4. First Law of Holes
I’m sure you’ve heard this before; the first law of holes is “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” Occasionally, you become a postman as a result of the marketing culture or your reporting boss.
Consider the following scenario: all of the ideas you’ve offered over the past several months have been discarded, and your reporting boss views you as a glorified foot soldier. Every day at work feels like a scene from Groundhog Day, except that you’re not chasing an Andie MacDowell. The writing is on the wall; it’s time to quit and consider what you want to do with your life.
This has been a long blog post, so thanks if you’ve made it to the end. I would love to hear your thoughts, if any, about the paper-pushers, postmen, and dead-weights you have encountered at your workplace. Probably details of how you dealt with them and their behavior to improve your marketing culture. Finally, this was a long rant, so thanks again for reading through.